Friday, 15 July 2011

Days in Japan

I've been in Kyoto now a couple of days, and perhaps I should say something about my experiences here. I simply love it. The summer heat, the warm nights, the people I meet, the way I myself function here. 

I've written before about the Kamo river. Today I decided to go to the university on foot along the riverbank rather than taking the train. Wonderful. I realized again how much I like the place. When I felt the gravel and the wooden planks of the bridges under my feet, it felt as if the place itself, or its spirit, was welcoming me. Yes, it was right to come here. Some places are just like old friends, and just as deserving of visits. 
As I passed the houses of the homeless under one of the bridges, three of the inhabitants were standing outside, joking with each other and laughing. A picture of happiness.

Recently my days have been taken up by trips to Osaka, by talks, meetings, events and fieldwork. I've been able to listen to amazing stories from people who participated in the last ditch fight to protect the tent village of Nagai Park from eviction - a fight that was fought not with violence but by a theatrical play, performed on a stage while the city staff and the guardsmen demolished the village (see here for some You Tube footage). I spent a peaceful morning at Oshiteriya, and what a privilege it was, next day, to take part in the cooking of tamago-donburi in Ôgimachi Park, despite the many mosquitos. My thanks to the generous chef! Tomorrow I'm off to Osaka again, this time for a demonstration and for an interview.

Nagai Park today
One of my impressions is that "deprivation" is not really the most apt word for describing life in the tent villages. There might be some truth in the statements of people like Ogawa Tetsuo or Nagagiri Kôsuke about the richness of life in these villages. Collective life seems to have survived here much more than in in so called mainstream society. Materially, it can't be denied that life here is characterized by hardship and poverty. But the poverty is perhaps not as extreme as many people think. As long as they are able to maintain their village, they are able to live a life not much worse than anyone else's. Above all they do not give the impression of being helpless or mere objects of charity or pity.

Over the last decade, most of the big tent villages in Osaka have disappeared, many through large scale forced evictions. Homelessness is still rampant, but today many of the homeless are forced to lead an insecure and ambulant life on the streets rather than in the comparative safety of the villages. Many have been pressured to enter shelters and apply for welfare. Among those who receive welfare and manage to secure an apartment, many feel isolated and return to the remaining villages to find company. 

Aluminum cans, crushed for recyling

I know so little and they know so much. There might not be much meaning in stating my superficial impressions. Still, I will end with one more. One of the few things in this country that really, really shines is activism, that of homeless people as well as that of freeters. Not pop culture, not chanoyu, not Toyota. Activism, by the way, is not a conduct linked to a particular role, that of "activists". It is the attempt to be alive, to be free and able to act, rather than just being an object or helpless bystander. 

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